A Writer's Craft

Multi-Genre Creative Writing

by Kendall Dunkelberg

Teaching with A Writer's Craft



Why Teach 4 Genres?

When I first started teaching at Mississippi University for Women, there was one creative writing class, EN 312 Creative Writing. We still have this as our intro class today. There was also a rarely taught Seminar for Playwrights in theatre and a course with the lovely title Advanced Prose. I was happy to keep Creative Writing as a mixed genre course, and soon developed advanced workshops in poetry and fiction. This allowed me to justify teaching just poetry and fiction in the intro class. I felt nonfiction and playwriting could be handled elsewhere, even if the situation wasn’t ideal.

My textbook at the time, The Creative Process by Carole Burke and a Molly Best Tinsley, covered 3 genres. But I left out Creative Nonfiction and told students to take Advanced Prose, which we soon renamed Nonfiction Writing. Still, it began to bother me that I wasn’t covering one chapter in the book, and eventually I found ways to incorporate some Nonfiction as well. When I finally moved on to a new textbook, I had the same transition with drama, initially ignoring it because we had another class, and eventually experimenting with including some playwriting in my class. Now, I try to spend about as much time on all four genres, and I’ve found that it really helps my students.

Everyone in my class writes at least a short, early draft in each genre, and then develops finished pieces in the genres they choose. I do require some lyric and some story forms. Fiction writers learn from playwriting, as much as I always thought they would from poetry. Poets learn from drama and nonfiction, too. Having to think about how a scene or poem might be staged or spoken aloud affects how you see it in revision, even if the final product is poetry or fiction. Writing from life in creative nonfiction, or exploring the personal essay informs the fictional story or suggests structures and imagery for a poem.

And students have the opportunity to explore modes of writing that they never considered before. I’ve had very good short play scripts, and I’ve had drama scenes that turn into a story or memoir or dramatic poem. Some fiction writers or poets have been turned on to memoir or essay. We now are revitalizing our playwriting class, in part because we have someone who can teach it more regularly, and in part because there is more interest due to the exposure students get in the intro class. We can treat Nonfiction as more of a workshop class and less of an intro class. And each of the genres feed off each other more when they are introduced together. I’m happy that when we focus on poetry or Nonfiction, my fiction writers don’t feel left out because I treat it as part of a study of all genres that helps us learn from each the tools that can help us with our chosen genre, and I want students to not limit themselves to one.

I don’t feel that we have less time for fiction or poetry now that we include two more genres, in other words. I try to think in cross-genre ways and have more time for all the genres because we don’t study them as isolated things. When we do this, there are a lot of topics we can cover together about the writing process and even basic issues like character, voice, or point of view. This is much more efficient than separate intro classes by genre, and it helps students find the genres they are actually good at, instead of the ones they think they are good at — and I hope they add genres they like, not replace one with another.

Why 4 genres? Because it is challenging, rewarding, and fun to teach them together and learn things from each that can be applied to any genre.

Cross-Genre Teaching

One of the main things that makes teaching creative writing in 4 genres interesting, fun, and more efficient than teaching the genres individually, is that you can see how each genre relates to and informs the others. In teaching multiple genres at the intro level, there is greater efficiency. Certain early chapters in A Writer’s Craft automatically relate to any genre. When we talk about the writing process—the process of finding inspiration, finding form, and revising until you have a final product—it doesn’t matter whether we are writing story (fiction or nonfiction), essay, poem, or drama. When we talk about image or the way creative writers use language differently than they do when writing essays, letters, or grocery lists, the genre of creative writing doesn’t matter. In fact, talking about the way poets do this helps fiction writers, and thinking about dramatists or novelists helps poets.

It’s not just that we don’t have to repeat those opening chapters in each successive course (Introduction to Fiction, Introduction to Poetry, etc.), but that seeing how different writers approach the same issues helps me cover all the genres in greater depth.

I didn’t come up with this approach on my own, of course. It was one of the qualities I most admired about The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley, the first textbook I used, and it was a quality I looked for in every textbook I used or considered thereafter, though I never found one that was quite as even-handed and truly cross-genre as theirs, which didn’t include drama.

I’ve tried to make A Writer’s Craft more cross-genre, not less. The opening chapters on the writing process and working with language, image, memory, and the imagination are all very open to cross-genre work. At that point, I stress that writers often don’t know what form the final product will take, and maybe they shouldn’t try to decide too early, since a predetermined form can get in the way of an idea, especially when we’re not fully comfortable with that form. With practice, form can actually lead to new ideas, but that usually works better when we know the form inside and out and can use it as a generative device, not when we’re learning the form and trying to come up with an idea at the same time.

This approach carries over into the first chapters on finding form. When discussing character and point of view, I try to apply the concepts to all genres, not just fiction. Poetry has a dramatic moment and a speaker of the poem. A creative essay has a character, even if that is only the narrator’s voice. Drama considers point of view in how it’s presented, though it doesn’t usually have a narrator. Considering point of view from these angles, for instance, helps students make sense of an abstract concept and apply it to fiction better, too. I try not to leave any of the genres out of the discussion in the opening chapters, in other words, and this helps me to find new ways to think about and explain these issues of form.

Because I am concentrating on a cross-genre approach, this also helps me introduce some topics specific to one genre in the early chapters. For instance, in the chapter about language, I introduce the concepts of rhyme and rhythm. I say we’ll bring this up again when we get to poetry, so I don’t talk in terms of rhyme schemes or meter, only in terms of how writers pay attention to the sounds and rhythms of their language. This helps me when I get to poetry because I don’t have to fight as many battles about end-rhyme. We can talk about what it is and compare it to internal rhyme, but it isn’t the thing that defines poetry. Meter is easier to discuss if writers have started to notice the rhythms of stress in their sentences before they have to memorize technical terms.

Similarly, talking about dialogue in general terms when discussing character and voice helps me when I get to the chapters on fiction and drama, where we cover some of the more technical ways of dealing with it, like how to format it on the page. Discussing the persona of a poem, helps when talking about the narrative voice in a personal essay, etc.

Even in the chapters on specific genres, I always include a section on what the genre can teach writers of other genres. What do fiction writers learn from poets or playwrights, what do poets or fiction writers learn from memoir or essay? In this way, these chapters build on one another, reinforce lessons learned in a previous chapter, and challenge writers to try new techniques learned from another genre.

Rather than viewing the four genres as separate beasts or even the only options for creative writers, I try to see how they are interrelated, and how they can be remixed and reconfigured in new, hybrid forms like the prose poem, flash fiction, kinetic poetry, or hypertext fiction, the mapped essay, creative gaming, etc. Genres are choices, and as you begin to make those choices, it affects the final form of what you write, but there are great advantages to knowing and learning from the forms of other genres, even if they aren’t the forms you gravitate to. Studying them together makes for a richer and more efficient discussion of them all, and that’s one way I’m able to teach all four in one semester.

The Small Group Workshop

Juggling student work in an intro class is never easy, and the traditional workshop model that allows you to talk about pieces by 2, maybe 3, students per day can quickly bog down. When I started teaching creative writing, I soon moved to a model where I have students work in smaller groups, usually of 3-4 students per group, for some of our sessions, especially early in the semester. It was a way to get more student work before at least some of the class earlier in the semester, so everyone got some feedback on their early work.

This model may seem familiar from the peer editing sessions often used in a composition class, though I adapted it somewhat. In comp, I usually gave my students peer editing worksheets with questions to answer about the paper topic. In creative writing, it made more sense to give the groups instructions for what to do, and this evolved into a pedagogical approach that’s a little different. Specific examples of Small Group Workshop instructions are included in the Lecturer Materials section of this site, but here, I’d like to discuss my general strategy for this kind of workshop and the reasons I gravitated to this method.

One of my early frustrations with students in a creative writing class was that they were uncomfortable giving constructive criticism to each other. Even though I gave them guidelines for workshop comments, they still inevitably praised each other’s work and suggested very few revisions. They did this, even though they often begged each other for more thorough comments — at least they told me this in course evaluations, though they may not have expressed it to other students. Small group workshops became a way to train students to comment on each other’s writing in a non-threatening environment. This seems to work better than starting with full-class workshops for a number of reasons.

First, the work they turn in for these workshops is usually based on an assignment I’ve given: write a character sketch, describe a public place, write a memory, etc. This means that the students aren’t as invested in what they’ve written as they would be if it were their latest great story or poem. Everyone is at an early draft stage, and they’re more willing to comment on each other’s work and receive those comments. I also believe that it’s easier for students to write comments on each other’s hand-written drafts than it is to comment on something typed and printed, which looks more final, even if it isn’t.

Second, because I tell them what to look for, students don’t feel intimidated about pointing those things out. I usually stick to positive judgements, such as finding the most evocative phrases or the clearest images. If I ask them to point out potential flaws, I try to be neutral in the way I describe it: I may ask them to underline three abstractions, for instance. I always have students make suggestions, and I remind them that they aren’t saying what should be in the piece, but rather what could be in it. They are also liberated in making these suggestions because I told them to, so it isn’t an implied criticism of the other writer.

Third, I always have everyone read everyone else’s writing. Initially, I have them bring their work to class and exchange with their group. We have 2-3 steps to the workshop so that everyone gets a chance to read everyone else’s exercise. Then there is time for the group to discuss each other’s work. Everyone gets a response from two or three other writers, and they compare notes on what they found.

That is where I really hear productive discussions taking place. Yes, I’ve led them somewhat by asking questions in the first rounds, and by giving them a list of questions to consider in discussion. But I usually hear the groups talking about other aspects of the writing, and often they point out the things they really liked about each other’s work. One student may bring an exercise they feel is terrible, and the group may find some very promising potential in it. Another student may bring something they think is fabulous and the group is confused but can either help make it clearer or suggest other possibilities for how to develop the piece.

Of course, for these early workshops assignments, students aren’t required to continue working on the exercise. My goal is that they learn something about the topic (language, character, point of view, etc.), not that their exercise turn into a finished piece, though often a character or an idea comes out of these workshop discussions that the writer decides to use in a more extended piece.

By the time we get to the chapters on specific genres, I change my strategy somewhat. Now that students are used to giving comments on each other’s work, I can create groups in our LMS (we use Canvas now, but have used Blackboard) where students can exchange files. This allows the students to read and comment on their group’s pieces before they come to class, so we can work with longer passages — maybe a couple of typed pages instead of one hand-written page.

We do one small group workshop on each genre, so students write something for each. However, they still aren’t required to make that exercise work as an essay, story, poem, or play. They could ditch that idea entirely, if they have enough other work for their portfolios, or they could adapt the writing they did in one genre workshop to another genre. We usually talk about how a nonfiction piece could be adapted as fiction or poetry, for instance, or how a drama scene would work differently if written as fiction, etc.

These small group workshops eventually give way to full class workshops in the latter 40% or so of the class, and ultimately will lead to a final portfolio of finished work. By the time we get to the full class workshop, everyone has already discussed several early pieces of writing with some of the class. Because I change up the groups, everyone has gotten some feedback from everyone else, and they’ve developed a sense of a writing community, and everyone has written some drafts in each genre that we cover.

Full-Class Workshops

Once we have worked our way through the four genres, I open the class up to workshopping with the full class. We can usually handle 2-3 texts in a 50-minute period. If there aren’t too many students in the class, I will schedule 2 people per day, but if necessary, I schedule 3 per day at least some of the time to allow everyone at least 2 times to bring their work.

Because we’ve already discussed genres individually, we can handle cross-genre workshop sessions, where one person may bring a poem and another may bring fiction, nonfiction, or a play script. I don’t limit students to bringing one short piece and one long piece, though I do sometimes allot a little more time to a longer text.

Because some of the students have already seen part of the text in their small group workshop, our discussion is often more efficient, yet students get the value of more perspectives on their writing, and they get to see how their classmates have revised and developed the work they saw previously. It’s great that this structure allows us to workshop a piece more than once in different stages of the writing, so we can really discuss the process of revision.

Discussion also goes better, thanks to the lessons students have learned in the small group workshops. They are more willing to make suggestions about each other’s work, and more willing to take those suggestions. I remind them at the outset that the best time to bring work to the workshop is when it is more than half-baked, but not completely finished. You should be far enough along in your drafting process that the class can give you useful feedback (not the obvious comments about an early draft you could have figured out on your own), but not so far along that you are finished with the piece — you should still be receptive to suggestions.

Because students are more comfortable making suggestions, I usually don’t have to lead the discussion too much. I will play devil’s advocate at times, making suggestions that the group isn’t considering, and I will raise issues that I think it would be good for the class as a whole to consider, but I try to save my own comments on the piece for an individual conference with the student.

In course evaluations and reflective exam questions about the workshop process, I have consistently noticed that students value the full-class workshops the most, but they also appreciate the small group workshops. And some have even come to realize that the freer discussions in Small Groups helped their discussions later.

I say the Small Groups are freer, even though I give them initial steps to consider and questions to discuss. Once they’ve done that part, their discussions can go wherever they want (and sometimes, I suspect they ignore my instructions and just talk about their work after awhile). In Small Groups, I allow the writer to respond to the group; in Full-Class workshops, I ask the writer to be silent after they have read from their work. They will have a chance to respond briefly at the end, but during our discussion I want us to ask our questions of the text and each other, and not to rely on the writer for answers. That can be difficult, and sometimes we break that rule, but it can be a good guideline to have (though not the only model for workshopping).

The Full-Class Workshops are where students take the work they’ve done already, choose the writing they are most interested in, and adapt it to the genres they want to write for their final portfolios. It makes sense to allow them to choose whatever work they want for workshop, since I try to place very few restrictions on their final portfolio.

Midterm and Final Portfolios

I always assign a midterm and a final portfolio. I’m an advocate for giving students some sense of their grades before they are done, and a midterm portfolio of work in progress is a way to let students know if they are generating enough material and taking it far enough by that point in the semester. The final portfolio contains their polished, finished work. Most of the work in the final portfolio will also have been in the midterm portfolio, though some new work may be included, and some work from the midterm portfolio may not be in the final portfolio.

I assign midterm and final portfolios in all of my undergraduate classes. In the intro class, where we are working on 4 genres, I allow students to choose what genres they include in both portfolios. The midterm portfolio is usually due as we’re just starting to consider genre. And since we’ve already covered all 4 genres by the time we get to the final portfolio, I don’t feel I have to see finished work in all 4. I do require at least 1 story and 2 poems (or I might consider part of a play or essay to be a lyric form). The point is that I want to be sure they have a variety of finished work, and that they are working with narrative and lyric forms. But the scene of a play done for the drama workshop might be transformed into a scene for a short story. Or their essay might get turned into a poem. A lyric essay would qualify as a poem, as would a prose poem. A dramatic monologue or dialogue could qualify as a poem, too.

My goal in teaching 4 genres is to get students to explore different modes of writing and to discover a kind of writing they may not have thought they could do. It is also to see how all the genres inform each other, so I don’t mind it if students gravitate towards one or two genres. I want them to try something outside of their comfort zone, and I tell them that I will grade their strongest work first and the genre that isn’t their strong suite will be graded as the part of the portfolio where they were trying something new.

Still, I keep experimenting with ways to word the portfolio requirements so they don’t privilege fiction and poetry over nonfiction and drama. I like the idea that there are narrative forms and lyric forms. If I were to expand my requirements to more than 2, I would want to consider rhetorical or essay forms and performative forms. If I do add these in the future, I probably wouldn’t require that students submit at least 4 pieces, one in each form, but instead that their work reflect these 4 modes, but that they may be combined. A poem may be both lyrical and performative, in the same way that a play might (and might also have a narrative). A nonfiction piece might have narrative and lyric moments, and a story might have lyrical passages.

Those criteria would be a little harder to identify, and might require an artist’s statement that discusses how the different forms are reflected in the portfolio. I’m not quite ready to go there yet, though I often include an exam question that asks students to be self-reflective about their writing.

For now, I’ll stick with a portfolio that includes some prose and some poetry, some narrative and some lyric. Teaching in 4 genres has been an evolutionary process. I have found it more rewarding and challenging the more even-handed I’ve become, and I expect that my methods will continue to evolve as long as I continue to teach.

Teaching Creative Writing with Literary Magazines

I’m a big fan of teaching creative writing with literary magazines, and have been doing it my whole career. When I first started teaching Creative Writing, I used the textbook The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley. It is a thin little book with chapters on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, along with cross-genre introductory chapters, and it was very influential to me in the way that I teach. One of the things it doesn’t have is an anthology of readings in the book. I was happy with that.

Since I was guest-editing an issue of The Literary Review, I began by ordering back issues of it for my class. I would order a box and sell them at cost to my students. Usually I broke about even, though collecting their $4 was sometimes a challenge. I never lost much on the deal, though, and I was supporting a good journal. If you have connections to a journal in your area or know someone on a journal’s staff, this can be a good way to go.

One challenge of doing it this way was that I usually got our sample back issues just a week or so before classes started, or sometimes even after they had begun. I would pick out stories and poems for the class to read, and I often didn’t have a chance to review them. Students knew that; we were all exploring brand-new work together. That was also part of the thrill. It made class a little unpredictable, though I always knew the quality of the work would be fantastic. Subscribing to the journal you want to use would help, though, since you would likely have the issue in question before ordering a number of back issues for your class.

Eventually, I decided to move to different textbooks after The Creative Process began to feel a little dated for me. I tried a couple that had selections of readings in them, and it was always a little bit of a letdown. It was nice to have the readings well in advance of teaching the class, but it never felt as fresh as when I was using a lit mag. Most of the selections in a textbook had been published several years ago, and updating the anthology selections was one thing that led to new editions, which in turn increased the textbook cost for students.

When I decided to write my own textbook, I opted not to include an anthology of readings. Instead, I’ve been having my students purchase a recent Pushcart anthology. This has the advantage of having more selections to choose from, and it’s not terribly expensive. The selections come from magazines published in the previous year, so the writing still feels incredibly fresh. There is also an index of magazines consulted, which is helpful for students who want to learn about publishing. I’ve used the Pushcart Prize Anthology because it includes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. I’ve had to supplement drama from online magazines. Proscenium magazine publishes scripts and has back issues available online. To find other magazines that publish drama, go to New Pages’ Big List of Literary Magazines and search on drama.

CLMP also has a literary magazine adoption program for use in the classroom. Faculty are able to let their students purchase reduced-price subscriptions for use in their classes. This sounds like a convenient way to get students magazines. The one drawback is that it might be hard to incorporate in your syllabus if you don’t know exactly which stories/poems, etc. will be in an issue when it arrives.

Another interesting program is the Journal of the Month. With this program, your class receives 4 batches of journals over the course of a semester. Like with the CLMP program, it might be difficult to predict what you want students to read in advance, since you won’t get the journals until the students do. The cost is higher than CLMP, but you get access to more journals, so it could be a better deal.

Another way to use literary magazines in an intro to creative writing class is to have students write a magazine review. They have to find their own magazine, get a copy, and then write a short review of it. I have them focus on the kinds of things a writer would care about if deciding where to submit: what is the quality of the magazine, who publishes in it, what styles do the editors seem to prefer, etc. Finding a magazine can be a challenge if you aren’t in a city with a good independent bookstore. But there are libraries with magazines, and students can always order one if they start early enough. And I’ll allow an online journal if students can access a full issue. New Pages even has a magazine store, where you can buy sample copies online, which can help the students who plan ahead. And CLMP’s Literary Magazine Adoption program could also work well for this.

Plagiarism in Creative Writing

In a creative writing class we are held to the same standards as other academic writing, yet the conventions for attributing a source are nowhere near as established. No one expects a parenthetical citation or bibliography or list of works cited in a short story, play, or poem, though it could be done and wouldn’t be at all surprising in a creative nonfiction essay.

Creative writers are more likely to live in the real world, where expectations and conventions of attribution are more fluid, yet the consequences of an accusation of plagiarism can be devastating. Still, writers often allude to or even borrow from other writers’ work. The idea of sampling in music has crossed over to creative writing in recent years, and there is a long history of adaptation, parody, and creative reuse. Conventions about authorship have also changed dramatically in different periods. All of this leads to a more confusing landscape, and yet some basic principles and strategies can be observed.

The first is that creative reuse of material needs to be creative. Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new” is a good place to start. For example, a found poem takes existing language and re-envisions it with line breaks that cause the reader to find new connections or pay attention to a different aspect of the original text. If your use of material does not change the way we see that material in some way (perhaps through re-contextualizing, parodying, or satirizing the original), then it will likely be seen as too derivative at best and plagiarized at worst. If you use the words or ideas of someone else without having a good reason to use them, it would be better not to do it!

Writers do rely on the concept of fair use, making an allusion to another work by quoting or paraphrasing a short passage. When the allusion enriches the work at hand, this makes sense. Writers then face the question of whether and how to indicate what they have done. If the allusion is brief and to a well-known text, often no attribution is necessary. It will be recognized by most readers. Even obscure references are sometimes made without acknowledgement, leaving the reader to figure out the allusion or to rely on footnotes provided by editors.

Famous writers from the past seem to have done this often, judging by the notes found in anthologies and critical editions. Contemporary readers should remember, though, that expectations have changed over time and that what we now see as an obscure reference may have been better known at the time it was written. We shouldn’t take the need for footnotes in historical texts as license to be obscure or derivative now.

Some writers have indicated they were quoting, simply by using quotation marks, even if they didn’t name the source. Other writers have found ways to acknowledge their source more directly. Often the choice depends on the amount of text that is quoted or adapted, how well-known the original text is, and how important it is to the author that the source be revealed. For instance, Marianne Moore often quoted from obscure scientific journal articles in her poems without naming the source; the quotation marks were enough to indicate language coming from outside the text.

If we’re talking about a word or phrase that alludes to another text, no reference may be needed, but if we’re talking about extended references to the same source material, acknowledgment is probably wise. Here are a few strategies a writer might consider.

  • Name the author or title of the source within your text, title, or subtitle. Finding an unobtrusive way to mention your source is often the best strategy, if it can be done.
  • Include an epigram: a brief statement, usually in italics, under the title. This may be as short as a word or phrase, such as “after so-and-so” or as long as a quotation from the original source. The epigram can provide enough space to explain the context of the original material, even the date or journal of a published source. Or it might hint at the original without explicitly giving all the details.
  • Add a footnote: though less common, this strategy has been employed by some writers to document their borrowing. Footnotes have also been used as another layer of the creative text, and may be as literary as the main text of the piece.
  • Write annotations: though these usually follow the text, rather than appearing on the same page as a reference, annotations can be used to explain what has been used and how, pointing the reader to the original source texts if they are interested in pursuing the topic further.
  • Write an acknowledgement: in a book, the acknowledgments page is often used to discuss the inspiration for a work and how that source text has been used.
  • Include an Author’s Note at the beginning or end of the text to explain what your source is and how you have used it.
  • Mention your source in your contributor’s note: with magazine publication, the writer’s choices are more limited. An epigram may seem too artificial for a given reference, yet you might tip your hat to the source in your note.

What strategy you use will depend on the situation. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer the way there is for academic essays. Yet usually there is a simple solution that involves one of these methods or a combination or another creative way to include a reference. If your intention is good and you make an honest attempt to acknowledge your source material, there shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re sloppy or only go half-way to pay your debt to your sources, it could be embarrassing.

In a class, I always tell my students to talk to me about what they’re doing to work with a text. In that situation, there should never be a question of plagiarism. In an academic context, plagiarism is about academic dishonesty. If you tell me what you’re doing and we agree on strategies to deal with it, then there shouldn’t be a question of your honesty in the class. I may tell you that I think you need to do more to make the source material your own, but if we’ve agreed on a plan for acknowledging your source, then you’re being honest and aboveboard. If, on the other hand, I discover you’ve used material inappropriately and we haven’t discussed it, then there could be trouble. When a work is published, especially if it is a full-length work, then legal questions of copyright and permissions also come into play. Quoting from song lyrics can get very expensive, for instance, since the music industry is extremely vigilant about copyright.

Of course, the grossest cases of plagiarism usually involve someone stealing someone else’s full text and passing it off as their own. There’s absolutely no excuse for that, and the ramifications, both in the academy and the real world are and ought to be severe. For every other form of honest and creative use of a source, there ought to be creative ways to pay homage to the writer who came before. Writers can learn from the strategies other writers have used. Creative writing students can rely on their professors, and publishers ultimately rely on their legal staff to make sure they have all of their bases covered.